Social entrepreneur Jim Johnson creates a SAFE path to economic prosperity

One in three Americans over age 65 experiences a fall each year, most often in their own homes. Of those who fall, 20-30 percent suffer moderate to severe injuries that hinder independent living and increase the chance of early death.

“Since the most rapidly growing segment of our population over the next 20 years is seniors, the problem will worsen and costs will escalate if viable interventions are not developed,” says James H. Johnson, Jr., director of the Kenan Institute's Urban Investment Strategies Center.

Fall-related injuries in the United States account for five times more hospitalizations for older adults than injuries from any other cause and cost more than $19 billion for families, caretakers, hospitals, insurance companies, government, and those who fall, especially uninsured and indigent people. A 2003 RAND Corp. study estimated that a fall prevention program could save $1.7 billion a year in Medicare costs alone.

Johnson, a social entrepreneur, and a team of MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School have developed a sustainable solution to attack the problem head on and create an economic driver in the process.

“Secure Audits for Elderly (SAFE) is a major opportunity to enhance the likelihood of seniors remaining in their homes,” says Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “It will also help lower health care costs and will create jobs.”

Educating and safeguarding seniors

Johnson is seeking federal stimulus dollars through the state of North Carolina to launch the new not-for-profit venture, SAFE, to help prevent falls by the state’s elderly population.

SAFE will send audit teams to the homes of elderly people across the state to assess dangers, educate seniors, and implement exercise programs. Such tactics have been shown to result in a dramatic drop in the number of falls experienced by elderly people.

MBA students in Johnson’s social entrepreneurship class developed the business plan to create and sustain the nonprofit venture in partnership with UNC School of Medicine’s Center for Aging and Health.

This new line of business is in keeping with the Urban Investment Strategies Center’s mission to develop innovative solutions for revitalizing distressed communities. Johnson sees obvious connections with other center programs.

Union Independent School, for instance, a model urban school in northeast-central Durham, N.C., founded by Johnson and a local minister, plans to invite seniors from its surrounding neighborhood to exercise at the school. This will promote healthy living habits and reduce falls among elderly residents and create a vital community connection between the community and students.

Engaging stakeholders, creating jobs

SAFE proposes to engage key stakeholders in the university, government, and private sector in strategic alliances to attack the fall prevention problem.

These include:

  • UNC’s Institute on Aging, which will design a program to train and certify lay health professionals to conduct fall prevention campaigns and senior home audits.
  • The Employment Security Commission of North Carolina and other workforce development agencies, which will recruit unemployed North Carolinians for slots in the lay health professional training program.
  • N.C.-based home construction professional associations, which will establish safe standards as well as recruit and certify construction contracting companies to perform home adaptability renovations recommended by audit teams.

SAFE also will work with government agencies to leverage available tax credits for the senior home-renovation process.

Johnson estimates SAFE can generate 7,000 new jobs in the state with its audit teams, educators, and home renovators. Cost savings for hospital and insurance companies that result from lower spending on indigent care will increase the economic return.

Expanding and sustaining the program

SAFE’s sustainability plan includes seeking angel and equity investments from insurance companies, hospitals, home improvement and medical supply companies, and other businesses that stand to benefit economically from its prevention efforts.

“My vision is to make the SAFE program sustainable and eventually to franchise the program,” Johnson says.

“Better health and a higher quality of life for the elderly, cost savings, and job creation,” says Johnson. “It’s an idea whose time has come and an investment it’s time to make.”


Entrepreneurship • Economic Development • Global Competitiveness

Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Campus Box 3440, The Kenan Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440 USA
919/962-8201 •